Michael Jordan might have found his all-star in Lance Stephenson

07/19/2014 2:56 PM

02/03/2015 6:13 PM

Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan spoke so highly of the 23-year-old NBA player he employed that it seemed like he was anointing him as one of the future all-time franchise greats.

“I think his confidence, in terms of taking a game-winning shot, is a plus,” Jordan said. “You can’t teach that. You either have it or you don’t. ... He has the skill level. You see the explosiveness. You see the signs. Now he has to show that desire to improve and work at it. ... He could very well be an All-Star in two years.”

An All-Star in two years?! Wow. Jordan must have been talking about 23-year-old Lance Stephenson a few days ago, right?

Nope. That quote came from an April 2011 interview. And Jordan was talking about Gerald Henderson.

If Henderson had panned out the way Jordan hoped, the Hornets never would have signed Lance Stephenson to a three-year, $27.4-million contract on Friday. But now it is Stephenson who will be given the chance to be the player Henderson has never quite become at shooting guard.

There are highlight tapes of Stephenson floating around YouTube that showcase his dazzling offensive skills. He handles the ball almost as well as Kemba Walker. He can break down opposing wing players with his dribbling or overpower them with his bulk. He shoots effectively from 3-point range. He passes the ball well enough that he had more assists per game for Indiana than Josh McRoberts did last season for Charlotte.

And he has confidence galore. A couple of examples from Stephenson from his series of interviews on Friday, when the Hornets officially introduced him:

• “I am definitely a great player.”
• “When we need a bucket, I feel like me, Kemba and Al (Jefferson) will be the go-to guys.”

In both cases, Stephenson is probably right. He is also good at expressing things more bluntly than the typical professional athlete. It reminds me a little of the way wide receiver Steve Smith told then-general manager Marty Hurney before he had ever played a down for the Carolina Panthers that he would be the best player in team history – then went out and proved it.

But where is the real difference between Stephenson and Henderson?

It’s not highlight-tape footage. Henderson could assemble just as impressive a tape as Stephenson from last season if you showed only his best plays, and Henderson is the more explosive leaper and thunderous dunker.

It’s not height – they are both 6-foot-5. It’s not points per game – Henderson had 14 last season and Stephenson had 13.8.

No, the difference comes down to rebounding (7.2 for Stephenson, 4.0 for Henderson), assists (4.6 for Stephenson, 2.6 for Henderson), shooting percentage, defense (Stephenson is considered a more versatile defender) and intangibles.

Both players can be frustrating at times, but for different reasons.

Henderson is a shooting guard who really doesn’t shoot that well. He is frustrating because of his inconsistent production.

Stephenson has started 38 playoff games compared to Henderson’s four. But he also blew in LeBron James’ ear in the playoffs – Stephenson said Friday this incident was “overblown,” which was a bit of unintentional irony that I just loved. And he has had several other on-court incidents that went too far and occasionally hurt his team.

“Sometimes he has crossed the line a little bit,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said Friday. “I think he does that out of competitiveness.”

“I don’t really have friends on the court,” Stephenson said Friday, speaking of his opponents.

That sounded a little harsh, but on the other hand Stephenson did bring both his parents to his signing in Charlotte, which was a sweet gesture.

Clifford was careful in his assessment of his shooting guard logjam Friday. Besides Stephenson and Henderson, he also has rookie P.J. Hairston and veteran Gary Neal – both of whom are very capable 3-point shooters.

“I don’t even know who is going to be the starters, who is going to be coming off the bench or what the minutes will look like,” Clifford said.

That’s what Clifford should say, but I imagine the coach has a pretty good idea who will play. If Stephenson’s talent can be harnessed, it is undeniable: He cannot be benched. One prominent Las Vegas oddsmaker dropped the Hornets’ odds for winning the 2015 NBA championship from 75-1 to 50-1 after the Stephenson signing.

“Lance is one of the best younger players in the league,” Hornets general manager Rich Cho said, “and he’s only 23 years old.”

There’s that “23” number again – the one Jordan made famous. At age 23, Henderson was just coming off a season in which he averaged 9.1 points per game. The next two seasons Henderson would score slightly more than 15 a game, but he couldn’t impact the bottom line.

The then-Bobcats went 28-120 in those two seasons, the worst combined record in the NBA over that period. This past season Henderson’s numbers dropped a little – and a lot during the playoffs – but Charlotte won 43 games as he and the rest of the team molded the offense around Jefferson’s dizzying sequence of post moves.

The timetable for Jordan’s All-Star prediction came and went quietly. Henderson never got close. Stephenson did get close this season, but like Jefferson he was snubbed and was not happy about it.

Although I think Stephenson will start on opening night over Henderson, it is also true that the former Duke player isn’t going anywhere. Henderson is signed for $6 million this coming season and has a player option – which you would assume he would exercise – for $6 million more in 2015-16.

As for Stephenson, the Hornets built in a team option for the third year into his contract. If Stephenson doesn’t work out, the Hornets will probably trade him before that third year ever gets here.

What they and their fans are hoping for, though, is that Stephenson pushes the Hornets toward the top of the Eastern Conference. What they are hoping for is that several years later Jordan’s prediction for a star shooting guard on his team pans out – just for a different guy.

About Scott Fowler

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@scott_fowler

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.Email Scott at sfowler@charlotteobserver.com or call him at 704-358-5140



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